What is a systematic literature review?

A brief introduction

For more best practices see our method overview

Definition of a Systematic Literature Review

A systematic literature review (SLR), according to Kitchenham (2004), is a structured, comprehensive, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and interpreting existing research relevant to a particular topic or research question. An SLR is beneficial if you need to understand and communicate the current state in a particular field of research, for which a comprehensive and current SLR does not yet exist. You can also use it if you need to do a literature review for your final thesis.
An SLR involves a systematic search of the literature, rigorous selection criteria, and a thorough synthesis of the findings to provide an unbiased and comprehensive overview of the existing knowledge on the subject. The goal is to minimize bias and ensure that the review process is transparent and replicable.

Process of a Systematic Literature Review

Do you need a systematic literature review for your thesis? Or are you researching a topic for which the literature has not yet been systematically analyzed? Then you have already taken the first step, you have identified a gap where it is worth carrying out an SLR. The next step is to create a research protocol in which you plan your approach and which you update as you go along to document your research process. The research protocol is part of your audit trail. The process consists of the following steps:

Step 1:
Identification of research

The first step is to define a search strategy. To do this, you define the search terms according to your research question. You also need to determine where you want to look for literature. Where can you find relevant literature on your topic? In online databases, in the library or are there other sources? Document everything in your research protocol. It is worth testing your search terms in advance and refining them if necessary. In addition to the keyword search, it is worth carrying out 'snowballing' (Wohlin, 2014). This means you follow the references in a paper (backward search) and you search for papers that cite these papers (forward search).
Create a way to collect the literature you have found in an easy-to-use format. There are existing software applications for this or you can also use a simple table format.

Step 2:
Selection and quality assessment of literature

In the next step, the literature found is assessed in terms of quality and fit with the research. To do this, you must define selection criteria and/or exclusion criteria. The criteria can relate to the language of the paper, the type of paper or the content of the paper.

Example of selection criteria

Examples of selection criteria are:
  • Literature that was only written in English
  • Literature that has undergone peer review
  • Literature that includes an evaluation step

Step 3:
Data extraction

During data extraction, you gather important details from the studies you have selected. This means taking out key information like how the study was done, its main points, and what it found. Therefore, define a specific format such as a table to extract and organize this information. This helps you later when you're putting together all the findings from different studies. The goal is to have a clear and consistent way of extract important facts from each study.

Step 4:
Data synthesis

Data synthesis is predominantly descriptive (non-quantitative) in nature. Nevertheless, you can supplement the synthesis with quantitative information, such as the number of papers over time. The coding process consisting of open coding, axial coding and selective coding is suitable for descriptive synthesis. You can use QDAcity for coding the data by adding the PDFs of all relevant papers into your project and code it to synthesize a theory based on the body of literature.

Quality Assurance

To ensure high quality research, you can use various approaches. Below you will find a list of options for quality assurance:
  • You can integrate Peer Debriefing at multiple stages of your research process. For example to examine your research protocol with a more experienced researcher.
  • Intercoder Agreement can be carried out if you have already developed a code system.
  • The Theoretical Saturation of your project indicates whether you need more literature or have not already identified any new information in the last articles.

These and other quality assurance measures should also be described in your research protocol and the resulting work. This also shows the outside world that you have done high-quality work.


The Systematic Literature Review (SLR) supports the creation of a state-of-the-art report on existing research. This is a good basis for discovering potential research gaps. The process described here is based on Kitchenham (2004)'s instructions and ensures transparent, reliable, and reproducible research, which provides a useful basis for further research.

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